Setting the Stage for ­­­­Joy and Independence in Reading

by Irene Fountas, Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Author, and Featured Speaker at the 2016 Literacy for All Conference

A classroom is a place where children can thrive in a language-rich, print-rich, social environment every day of the school year. When you support continuous inquiry, children’s fascination with people and the world, and multi-text based learning, you engage the hearts and minds of your students. They learn how to learn and develop a sense of agency that will propel their literacy learning across the year.



The foundation of growing up literate in our schools lies in authentic literacy learning that brings together children’s language and background experiences with the world of print and media. It begins with getting wonderful books in every child’s hands and selecting high quality complex texts that capture children’s attention with the language, craft and ideas of fiction and nonfiction texts. And it continues when the fabric of the classroom is reading, thinking, talking and writing about books.

The early milestones for developing students’ views of themselves as readers and writers include setting up an organized classroom library in a range of relevant and appealing categories, providing a variety of enticing book talks and teaching your students to do the same, teaching students how to select books that interest them and they can enjoy, teaching students how to talk to each other about books, and introducing the reader’s notebook as a place to reflect on reading through writing.

When students spend their time reading books, thinking about books, talking about books, and writing about them, they build the stamina and independence that places books at the center and promotes a lifetime of joy in reading.

Irene Fountas will be speaking at the upcoming Literacy for All conference, October 23-25, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. Her sessions include:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Celebrating the Twentieth Anniversary of Guided Reading: Elevating Teacher Expertise in Differentiated Instruction (Grades K-5) 

Irene Fountas, Author/Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Lesley University, MA
Gay Su Pinnell, Author/Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, OH


Monday, October 24, 2016

Digging Deep: Teaching for Reading Power in Guided Reading Lessons (Grades K-5)

Irene Fountas, Author/Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Lesley University, MA
Gay Su Pinnell, Author/Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, OH

More on Text Levels: Confronting the Issues

New Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In response to the many comments the blog has received this week on the Text Levels- Tool or Trouble blog post:

You have shared many important thoughts on the topic of text levels.  Of course, children should read the books they want to read—those that engage their interests and that will bring them enjoyment throughout their lives.  Levels are simply not for children and should not serve as another means of labeling them and damaging their self-esteem.  Nor do they belong on books in libraries or on report cards.

Levels have an important place in the hands of teachers who understand them.  Many of you have found the instructional benefit of levels in assessment and in the teaching of reading, so you can support each child’s successful reading development across the grades.  When a text is too difficult to support new learning in small groups, the reader becomes passive and teacher dependent.  Reading becomes laborious and nonproductive.  When a text is just right, the reader can process it with successful problem-solving and expands his reading power with the teacher’s support.  We hope teachers go beyond the level label to understand and use the ten text characteristics to understand the demands of texts on readers.

The classroom text base needs to include a variety of texts for a variety of purposes.  All children deserve numerous opportunities every day to choose books to read and participate with peers in listening to and sharing age-appropriate books that fully engage their intellect, emotions and curiosity.  Alongside these opportunities, all children deserve responsive teaching in small groups for a part of their day with books that are leveled to support the continuum of competencies that enable them to become independent, lifelong readers.

Each of you can advocate with your school team to educate all involved in the appropriate and effective use of levels as one small part of an excellent instructional program that meets the needs of diverse students.

Helping Young Readers Think Like Historians

Deborah Hopkinson 2015by Guest Blogger Deborah Hopkinson, Author and 2015 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

I’m excited to be speaking at the 2015 Literacy for All conference, in part because I learn so much from educators. Teachers and librarians are the literacy experts. Me? I’m just a former fundraising professional and now full-time author who loves to write about history.

When I visit elementary and middle schools, I’ve found more young amateur historians out there than you might think. I almost always begin a session by asking students what kinds of books they like to read. It’s no surprise that readers are enthusiastic about scary stories, animal stories, mysteries, fantasy, and dystopian novels. But I’m always gratified to find a few students who like historical fiction or nonfiction.

History used to be considered boring: a litany of names and dates to be memorized. I remember being uninterested in my history textbook, but fascinated by the stories in the shaded boxes, which made me curious about what it would be like to live in another place and time.

As an author, I’ve sought to discover these stories through both historical fiction and nonfiction, including my new nonfiction title, Courage & Defiance, Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in WWII Denmark and my forthcoming historical fiction set in New York City, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket.


I’m interested in how we study and teach history, and how authors and educators together can inspire young people to develop a lifelong interest in learning about the past. I believe story is an important element in making history fascinating. Through stories, we better understand who we are and where we have come from. Putting good books into children’s hands help them imagine themselves in the place of someone else, whether it is the kid sitting next to them or someone from another time or place.

Professor Sam Wineburg, who founded the Stanford History Education Group, has said, “Coming to know others, whether they live on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the millennium, requires the education of our sensibilities. This is what history, when taught well, gives us practice in doing.”

The Stanford History Education Group ( has some tremendous resources for teachers to help students learn to read – and think — like historians. Instead of memorization, inquiry is at the core of each lesson plan. There are also classroom posters available that feature the four principles of historical thinking:

Visual literacy can also be an important tool to engage students’ interest in history. Many students are visual learners. When I present to students in schools, we spend time looking at historical photos to examine what pictures can tell us. “What’s going on here?” I ask. “And what do you see that makes you say that?”

I’ve found this exercise immensely helpful. In our bright, technology-driven, colorful world, it can be hard for young people to connect emotionally with a black-and-white photograph. But when students have the chance to imagine themselves in the picture – building the Empire State Building, taking courageous action against the Nazis, fighting a cholera epidemic, or walking along the decks of the Titanic, the past becomes more real.

Pioneering 19th century history educator Lucy Maynard Salmon said, “History must be seen.” In addition to looking at photographs, I like to challenge students to use their own eyes and look around at their own families and communities to help discover more about history.

When I encounter people of the past I feel a deep connection to other human beings who preceded me, and curious to know more. In crafting my stories for young readers, I strive to share that connection. I hope my stories help spark critical thinking as well as curiosity and emotional connections.

The object of study, Lucy Salmon said, should be “the search for truth.”

History, after all, is a lifelong study, a search for truth and meaning, not just of the lives of others, but of our own.

Deborah is speaking at the Literacy for All conference on Monday (11/16) and Tuesday (11/17). Monday’s session is entitled, “Be a Detective! Helping Readers Think, Research, and Write like Historians.” That session will be repeated on Tuesday and she has an additional Tuesday session, entitled, “Imagine Possibilities: Picture Books for All Readers.”

Deborah Hopkinson is the award-winning author of more than 40 books for young readers including picture books, historical fiction, and nonfiction.  Deborah’s nonfiction includes Titanic, Voices from the Disaster, Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924, and Courage and Defiance, Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark. Deborah’s historical fiction title, The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, won an Oregon Spirit Award. Her forthcoming books include, Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of the Borrowed Guinea Pig, and A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket.

A native of Massachusetts, Deborah received a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts and an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Follow Deborah on Twitter @deborahopkinson or visit her on the web at

Resisting the Frenzy: Staying the Course of Common Sense in Literacy Teaching

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author, Professor, and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In the past several decades, there have been a variety of movements that have shifted literacy teaching in our schools. Often the newest trend has meant a total mind-shift of instructional practice for teachers. Certainly something important can be learned from the emphases of each movement, but each swing of the pendulum has also left out some important areas of literacy teaching and learning. One cannot simply make the assumption when there is a new movement in the midst that the worthy new areas of emphasis are not already implemented in schools that are implementing a high quality literacy approach.

When we have articulated our values and beliefs about meaningful, authentic literacy learning in our schools, we can examine the contributions of each new movement in the light of well-grounded principles and stay the course of common sense in our responsibilities to our students, instead of shifting to a new bias that may compromise our commitment.

I will address a few of the key areas we have articulated in our work in supporting high quality literacy approaches that we believe have stayed the course of common sense for almost three decades.

First, every student deserves to have a meaningful and interesting reading life and writing life in school.

This means students read and write for real purposes every day in school and have choice in what they read and write. Choice breeds students’ sense of agency and promotes engagement, and furthers the development of one’s tastes in reading and one’s voice in writing. With the appropriate learning environment and scaffolding, students learn that reading and writing are thinking and that they can think about a variety of topics, authors and genres when they read and mentor with the thinking of the best of writers when they write. They experience some teacher-selected high quality literature and nonfiction, but also a good selection of self-selected material that builds their understanding of their selves and their physical and social world. They learn from their teachers how to make the good choices that offer enjoyment and expand their breadth and depth as readers, writers, and global citizens.

Second, students need a variety of structured opportunities to talk throughout the day.

Talk represents thinking. Students need to think and talk in school. This means pair and triad talk, small group talk, and some whole class discussions that have intent, not just talk for talk’s sake. This includes such instructional contexts as reading or writing conferences, literature discussion groups, guided reading groups, and interactive read aloud lessons that include pair or small group talk. Teachers sometimes don’t realize they are dominating the talk and robbing the students of the process of learning through verbalizing their understandings and building on or challenging each other’s ideas. The one who talks is the one who learns. Teachers play a key role in helping students learn how to use language that promotes conversation and the analysis of texts with others to achieve deeper understandings than any one reader could achieve on his own. When students discuss a variety of fiction texts, nonfiction texts, and poetry in a community of readers and writers, they learn how to use the language and vocabulary of literate people. These rich experiences build their background knowledge and academic vocabulary and put each learner in the role of a literate being.

Third, the text base for learning needs to include a variety of high quality fiction and nonfiction texts, primary and secondary sources, as well as poetry. 

The classroom text base needs to provide access to age appropriate, grade appropriate material that is of high interest and value. Sometimes the texts students are asked to read simply aren’t worth reading or don’t engage their intellectual curiosity. The texts need to be meaningful, relevant, developmentally appropriate and made accessible. Alongside this rich base, students need the opportunity to lift their reading powers with the precision teaching made possible with the teacher’s use of carefully leveled, challenging texts at the student’s instructional level. These texts allow for the differentiated, intentional teaching that each student deserves to develop an effective processing system and move forward as a self-regulating, independent reader.  Photo of Girl Reading

Fourth, students deserve to be acknowledged as unique learners.

Every student and every group of students is different. When teachers learn how to systematically observe the strengths and needs of individuals, the assessments can inform instruction and the teaching can be responsive. No assessment is valuable if it doesn’t result in better teaching. Good assessment gives information on how students process texts and what they understand about words, language, and text qualities. High quality literacy opportunities are built on the strength of the teacher’s expertise in assessing the readers and writers he/she is teaching. Some teachers fall into the trap of teaching students as if they are all the same or focus on teaching the book or program, not the diverse group of students in front of them. Effective teachers assess at intervals to document progress and assess by the minute to fine tune their decisions in the act of teaching.

Staying the Course 

These are some of the mainstays of high quality literacy opportunities for every student. Learning to read and write is complex and will require the complexity of teacher decision-making with sound rationales that are rooted in students’ observable reading, writing and language behaviors. Let’s look to the new movements for what they add to our expertise but keep our good sense about what really matters.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative events and trainings, visit our website at .

Articulating a Literacy Vision for your School

by Irene Fountas, Director, Center for Reading Recovery & Literacy Collaborative

Vision word dictionary definition

What are your beliefs and your vision for the literacy lives of students in your school?

Take a few minutes to jot down your beliefs or brainstorm with colleagues. If you are a school administrator, you might gather your faculty team for this activity. Think together about how you believe students should spend their time in a school day.

My beliefs are that students deserve to grow up literate in schools, engaging in the authentic literacy activities of thinking, talking, reading, and writing about books. Books are the center of thinking and talking about ideas, and students learn that they are responsible for supporting the literate lives of their peers.

Each student has the opportunity to choose books to read and experience a wide range of topics and genre through read alouds and book discussions. All students engage with appropriate texts that are intellectually stimulating as they build their language power. Alongside the opportunities for age appropriate text experiences, students deserve texts that support their ability to expand their reading power ­­­­across increasingly challenging texts. With these leveled texts, the teacher can scaffold the readers and support forward progress.

Lastly, readers need frequent opportunities for choice, independent reading to build their mileage and tastes as readers.

Students also need to build their writing lives through frequent writing opportunities for real purposes and audiences. They learn to write from writers, noticing their craft and becoming their apprentices. With explicit teaching in minilessons and writing conferences, the teacher supports the expansion of writing power. Small group guided writing lessons support the student’s common writing needs.

I believe this vision of authentic literacy offers students the multiple layers of rich, meaningful learning that they deserve. Think about your vision of how students would spend the day enjoying literacy and gaining the competencies they need.

It may help to write your vision so it can be referred to and revised.

If you are a school leader, gather your faculty team to create your school vision. You may want to consider joining me and my colleague, Cindy Downend this summer for a four day seminar in Cambridge, Massachusetts to learn how to lead with a powerful vision that enables every student to succeed. Visit our website to learn more.


Fountas, I., and Pinnell, G.S. (2006). Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency: Thinking, Talking, and Writing About Reading, K–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fountas, I., and Pinnell, G.S. (2011). The Continuum of Literacy Learning: Grades PreK–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fountas, I., and Pinnell, G.S. (2001). Guiding Readers and Writers: Teaching Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

New List of Book Recommendations- Levels T–Z


Over the summer, some of the people who work in our Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative to level books came up with a new list of books that they would recommend for Levels T–Z (upper intermediate, middle/high school). If you are looking to increase your classroom library, this list might be a good starting point!

New Book Recommendations for the Upper Grades

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Dying to Know You by Aiden Chambers

Dead is a State of Mind by Marlene Perez

The Auslander by Paul Dowswell

Titanic Sinks by Barry Denenberg

To the Mountaintop by Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Stuff That Scares Your Pants Off by Glenn Murphy

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Invisible Lines by Mary Amato

Crows & Cards by Joseph Helgerson

The Garden of Eve by K.L. Going

The Vanishing Game by Kate Kae Myers

See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Outlaw by Stephen Davies

Pop by Gordon Korman

Better Than Weird by Anna Kerz

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Heart and Soul by Nelson Kadir

Drawing From Memory by Allen Say

A Book of Coupons by Susie Morgenstern

City of Orphans by Avi

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks

The Troublemaker by Andrew Clements

The Lemonade Crime by Jacqueline Davies

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright

Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

Hidden by Helen Frost

R My Name is Rachel by Patricia Reilly Giff

Addie on the Inside by James Howe

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richards Jacobson

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

The Flint Heart by Katherine & John Paterson

When Life Gives You O.J. by Erica S. Perl

A Dog’s Way Home by Bobbie Pyron

Bluefish by Pat Schmatz

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt

The Great Wall of Lucy Lu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Storm Runners by Roland Smith

The Silver Bowl by Diane Stanley

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

Water Balloon by Audrey Vernick

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

Warp Speed by Lisa Yee

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Orwell’s Luck by Richard Jennings

Connecting Ideas: Explosions of Thought

by JoEllen McCarthy

2012 Literacy for All Conference Speaker and Staff Developer

Thought grenades.  Word wars. The power of an idea! These were the things that resonated with me after revisiting Frindle, by Andrew Clements. It got me wondering…

In our schools today, students and teachers are wrestling with the new Common Core State Standards.  The purpose of these new standards is to have children be career and college ready.  Ironically, career ready for those careers that do not yet exist. In the fictional book by Andrew Clements, “frindles” didn’t exist either.  That didn’t stop the main character, student Nick Allen, from wondering.

I wonder if thought grenades are the explosions of ideas that give us the ability to think more critically.  Isn’t that what we need for our students to be “career and college ready?”

Andrew Clements mentions, “Wondering and thinking are not the same things.”  Of course we want our students “to think like detectives, and read like investigative reporters” as per NY commissioner John King.  However, we want them “wondering” too.  There is a beauty that is intangible in thinking about students’ ability to wonder, to question, and to act on that inquiry.  Isn’t that the premise behind all really great ideas?  A curiosity or a passion exists that is so powerful, that it causes our students to act – to want to act: to read the next book by an author, explore a theme or to further investigate an idea, to read more, to write and in turn to think more deeply.

When we provide text sets (a string of texts around a theme, concept or idea of different genres, levels, media and resources) we provide a wider lens to spark deeper thinking.  Text sets encourage investigations that naturally help with the infamous balance of literature and informational texts required by the Common Core State Standards. But more importantly, thought grenades happen that enable us to reach our students’ diverse interests and learning styles. We can ignite their passions and allow for personalization and differentiation to meet the needs of all learners.  As facilitators of our students’ learning we need to encourage their conversations and collaborations around ideas.   Likewise, as teachers, when we talk with one another, attend conferences, book swap, friend each other on, connect as part of a Professional Learning Network like Twitter  (thanks Nerdy Book Club), our thinking grows and impacts our work with students.

In terms of the power of “thought grenades,” I will leave you with a “wonder-ful”  example.  There has been a gigantic explosion around the book Wonder, by R.J. Palaccio.  Teachers and students all over are reading the book Wonder.  The book is a must read for all.  It is also a great opportunity to create a text set around empathy:  Trudy Ludwig’s picture books My Secret Bully, Confessions of a Former Bully, Just Kidding; poetry from Baseball Snakes and Summer Squash, by Donald Graves; nonfiction short stories from Bullying & Me: School Yard Stories; videos from; or Bully, Patricia Polacco’s newest picture book that explores cyber bullying – to name a few.

We were given the gift of Wonder from R.J. Palacio.  Her idea was triggered as a result of an experience, followed by the encounter of the song Wonder by Natalie Merchant. A thought grenade happened.  In essence, because of her connection around an idea, her idea became more than a spark, it became an explosion.  Now, all over our country, thanks to R.J. Palacio, she has given us the “choose kind” mantra to wonder about…and hopefully act upon!  Deep connections across texts and around ideas increase understandings. Text sets and thought grenades both speak to the power of collaboration and connected ideas.  Be connected. Stay curious. Believe. Keep wondering. Thought grenades really do exist.


JoEllen McCarthy is a teacher, lifelong learner, and mother of 3 boy readers and writers.  She spends her days in classrooms as a regional staff developer outside of NYC.  She is passionate about literacy and has recently become addicted to Twitter. She is proud to be an official member of the Nerdy Book Club. @imalwayslearnin

JoEllen McCarthy will be presenting at the upcoming Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI.  Her session, “Reading, Writing, and Thinking Across Texts”, is scheduled for Tuesday, November 6, at 10:15 am. 

To read more about RJ Palacio

See #wonderofwonder or #choosekind on Twitter.

Recent guest blog for the Nerdy Book Club